The idea of an “Alpha” pair originates from the 1947 “Expressions Studies on Wolves" by Schenkel and was further popularized by L. David Mech’s "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species" written in1968 and published in 1970.
We now know this is not how wolves behave in nature, the aformentioned studies based on the observation of captive packs of unrelated wolves. Even Mech revoked his promotion of the “Alpha theory” as early as 1999 (alt. source).
The term ‘alpha’ suggests the winning of power through contest or battle, however the lead wolves in most wolf packs achieve their status by breeding, then their pups become part of their pack. More accurate descriptors for this lead, breeding pair are “breeding male/female,” “male/female parent,” or even “adult male/female.”
Dogs Aren’t Wolves
Dogs have diverged significantly from wolves in the last 15,000 years. Ancestral wolves evolved as hunters and now generally live in packs consisting most often of family members (Mech 2000). Pack members cooperate to hunt and to take care of offspring. In a given year, generally only the alpha male and alpha female mate, so that the resources of the entire pack can be focused on their one litter. Dogs, on the other hand, evolved as scavengers rather than hunters (Coppinger and Coppinger 2002). Those who were the least fearful, compared to their human-shy counterparts, were best able to survive off the trash and waste of humans and reproduce in this environment. Currently, free-roaming dogs live in small groups rather than cohesive packs, and in some cases spend much of their time alone (MacDonald and Carr 1995). They do not generally cooperate to hunt or to raise their offspring, and virtually all males and females have the opportunity to mate (Boitani et al. 1995)
Honestly, how can anyone think these two need to be treated the same?
Well, the logic was “dogs are descended from wolves, wolves live in packs with a hierarchy that’s kept in check by an aggressive alpha, therefore humans need to dominate their dogs if they want them to behave.”
Obviously, we know better now.
Dogs don’t want to fight with us for ‘dominance,’ they want to get along. The one causing adversity in the relationship would be the owner trying to push ‘dominance’ on their dog, would you enjoy a relationship that involved being bullied near constantly?
Neither would your dog.
To reiterate, dominance theory is the idea that humans need to force their dog into submission with the use of aggression in order to get them to behave.
Dominant-submissive relationships form to determine who has priority access to particular resources, these sort of relationships usually exist only when the dominant party is around to guard the desired resources.
Availability of resources isn’t something we have to worry about when raising a dog, at least not in the sense that we need to compete with our canine companions for them.
Why It Doesn’t Work
A huge flaw with dominance theory is that it fails to address the reasons for the problem behavior(s). Dominance training punishes the behavior without questioning why the dog is acting out in the first place.
Aggression, for example, is often a result of fear, anxiety, or insecurity. In situations like this in particular dominance training would be counterproductive, if your dog is fearful and you react with confrontational behavior (“alpha rolls,” hitting, staring down, etc) chances are you will only worsen the dogs fear and cause him/her to respond with defensive aggression.
Dangers of Dominance Theory
Dominance training can increase aggression, resulting in painful injury for you and an unhappy dog. Unsurprisingly, if you’re aggressive towards your dog your dog will be aggressive to you (“Treat people how you want to be treated.” not exactly the same, but still - kindergarten concept, people!).
It’s common knowledge among professionals that dominance theory is outdated and harmful.
But The Dog Whisperer said-
- Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs
- Comments on “Alpha” Dominance Theory
- De-Bunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory
- Forget About Being Alpha in Your Pack
- Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Do
- New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good
- Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals
- Whatever Happened to the Term ALPHA Wolf?
I went hiking for the first time in two weeks of buried deep in studying materials. Didn’t go for as long as I want to (I never get to), but it was still really nice and grounding. Both camera batteries inexplicably died after reaching a strange part of the forest, and I had not been taking very many pictures in the first place. My body feels more relaxed and okay than it has in a while. It’ll probably be another two weeks, as I have a weekend in Tucson coming up and a big project to finish for one of my classes just before spring break ends. In between all of that will be lots of Skyrim, redecorating, and - hopefully - revisiting old friends or working out. I always find myself in a funk during school breaks, so it’s probably best that I’m kept busy.